GENEVA — Trade ministers from poor West African nations Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin and Chad said Tuesday that a recent increase in subsidies to U.S. farmers threatened to bury their cotton industry.

This story first appeared in the December 2, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ahmadou Abdoulaye Diallo, Mali’s minister of trade, said the U.S. was subsidizing 20,000 cotton farmers for about $3 billion a year or an estimated $150,000 per cotton farmer. He said Mali has three million cotton farmers and Africa has more than 20 million who are pressuring their governments for an accord to eliminate all subsidies, which he said create unfair trade.

Diallo and ministers from the other nations “did not exclude the possibility” they might follow Brazil and launch a legal case against the U.S. policy in the World Trade Organization. But he also told WWD, “If there was no acceptable deal on cotton, there would be no deal on Doha [trade talks] — we would execute our veto.”

Mamadou Sanou, Burkina Faso’s minister of commerce, told reporters the so-called Cotton 4 would not wait to see the measures “bury their cotton sector and bury all the cotton growers.” He warned the disappearance of the cotton sector would have immeasurable costs for poor African nations. “Cotton farmers would lose their jobs, their incomes, no longer be able to send their children to school or get health care,” he said, with a devastating economic impact.

The Cotton 4 ministers, along with other African trade officials, met with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk here on the sidelines of the WTO ministerial meeting intended to jump-start the stalled Doha Round aimed at reducing tariffs worldwide. The trade officials are slated to hold direct talks with Kirk today on the cotton issue, senior U.S. and African diplomats said. The African ministers said there is goodwill from the Obama administration and noted that Kirk understands their cotton problem, but stressed they need to resolve the issue soon.

African diplomats said Kirk told ministers he intends to send a U.S. mission to the Cotton 4 nations to examine the seriousness of the situation. U.S. officials point out, however, that a cotton deal is not likely to be brokered until the end game in the Doha talks.

Significant discussions still have to occur, said James Miller, U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture, noting that Congress has the mandate on cotton support and indicated cotton will probably be one of the last issues to be decided upon in the agriculture segment of the talks.